Spending a day on the beach is quite a different experience in countries around the world. In the western world you'll see beaches crowded with people desperately trying to get a bronzed skin, in Asia however most people avoid the sun like the plague. Asians use whitening cream and make-up where we would use tanning oil and bronzing cream. Observing these differences is one of the things that makes traveling so interesting.
One Tuesday afternoon in Da Nang in Vietnam I find myself on the beach together with hundreds of Vietnamese, some spending their holiday here, others who live here. The city has a grand promenade lined with typical Asian hotels: small but high. Large patches of land between hotels are still undeveloped, leading to a comical sight of slim hotels rising from the streets as stakes in the ground. Tourists from western countries are nowhere to be seen, local tourism however is thriving. I bet this place will be fully developed in a few more years, disturbing yet another beachfront with high-rises catering to tourists.
When I arrive at 3 in the afternoon the beach is deserted except for a group of fishermen drawing a huge fishing net straight up to the beach. The catch of the day includes dozens of unfortunate small fish and a couple big ones; I cannot be more specific as I wouldn't be able to tell the difference between a salmon and a red snapper. Later that evening I would see the same fish ending up on numerous barbecues in the street-side restaurants near the beach.
A local television crew shows up and starts interviewing me about my experiences with Vietnamese hospitality and my opinion about the beaches in and around Da Nang. I'm trying to bring across my honest feelings about the amazing people and beautiful beaches but the reporter's English doesn't allow for an in-depth interview. We end up with her asking me a couple of basic questions to which I try my best to give a basic answer.
After half an hour, when the scorching power of the sun starts to abate, more and more people start showing up. You will still not see anybody sunbathing though, the beach remains my private domain for most of the afternoon. The Vietnamese prefer to stand chest-deep in the surf, guarded by lifeguards. Men take of their shirts and bathe in shorts or their jeans but the women will remain fully clothed when going for a dip. I suppose the market for swim shorts, bikinis and beach towels in this part of the world is not large. Some of the men seem to make an attempt at impressing the opposite sex by doing exercises on the beach as if preparing for a swimming championship. Nobody pays attention to them and when they finish their warming-up they casually walk into the water until they are also in chest-deep and just stand there. They most likely don't know how to swim, as is strangely enough the case with most of the population living near the ocean.
Now is also the time numerous informal businesses open up shop on the beach: elderly ladies handing out inner tubes, boys renting kites and photographers eager to eternalise this special day for you for 20,000 dong ($1 US). The kite owners don't see much business today as there is no wind to keep the kites in the air, the inner-tube renting ladies on the other hand are having a great day.
It takes just another thirty minutes for the water to be crowded with people up to the line where they can no longer stand. Lifeguards row out to sea in funny-looking traditional Vietnamese fishing tubs to make sure nobody drowns. The crowd consists of families with children, groups of schoolchildren and elderly men and women. All come to the sea to cool down after a hot day at work, school or in an air-conditioned hotel. Some are spending their holiday here, for others it is only a refreshing bath between their morning and evening jobs. The temperature of the water is ideal to cool down after a hot and sunny day.
Two men offer me a cold beer and a cigarette, the first of which I gladly accept and the second I kindly refuse. From what I understand they work in construction and just finished work for today. The older one of the two misses a lot of teeth and tries to make something clear to me in Vietnamese. After just three weeks in Vietnam I am glad I am able to recognise some words on menus in restaurants but the stories this man keeps telling are impossible to follow for me so he resorts to buying more beer. The younger one asks me if I am married — or at least that is what I think he is asking — to which I reply with my best “Không” (“No”). He continues by telling he is married and that he has three children, but from the gestures he is making I get the feeling they are no longer alive…
On this sad note I decide it is time to leave the beach and head back to my hotel where I am greeted by staff that is eager to practice their English skills on the few foreign guests who stay in Da Nang. I'll be back on the beach tomorrow afternoon, just like everyone else.